Thursday, November 27, 2014

Books NOT to discuss at Thanksgiving Dinner

This might be Gianna's family...or it might be from
Good Morning America's Awkward Thanksgiving Photos.
If you read one blog post today about how to survive your Thanksgiving should
probably be one written by just about anyone else. Let's say that you are joining your bookish family for turkey and such, though, but need to stay clear of awkward themes. You're entering a minefield of cranky people pissed off that the gravy and turkey aren't ready to go to the table at the same time, and the prudish aunt who's offended by every topic of any interest and is not so silently judging your life choices, and the asshole uncle who's been watching cable news all year and has many, many racist sentiments to share, and your precocious cousin who's the queen of the duckface selfie and also tight with Jesus, and yet there you are, crusading book nerd, searching for anything, ANYTHING, to discuss that won't lead to tears, screaming, or your brother live-tweeting the whole ordeal with the hashtag #shitcrazyfam. Oh yeah, and there are about four family dogs present and all are having turkey-gasms while the bird is roasting. We want you to survive the day relatively unscathed. Why? We love our fans (and those who search online for "awkward lesbian conversation" or "The Sound of Music Liesl" and find this blog).

Here you go. DO NOT offer up these books/authors as topics of conversation if you want to keep the peace. (Alternately, if you love the holiday train wreck, by all means use this list as a game plan for your day. We won't judge you.)

No, you don't want to
discuss this book or
movie with your parents. 
1. Fifty Shades of Grey. Chances are that this is the one book that multiple people present at your dinner have read (or about which they have an opinion). Now that the movie trailer is playing online and in theaters, the Fifty Shades insanity is ramping up once again, but don't fall into this trap. First, do you really want to hear your mom talk about steamy sex books? And then there's the chance that your dad also read it "just to see what the fuss was about," and though he secretly loved it, again, it's a parent talking about sex at the Thanksgiving table. And then granny wants to know what they're talking about and precocious cousin invokes the name of Jesus to offer an opinion totally based on her extensive life experience of church youth group trips to Mexico. The aunt who may have conceived precocious cousin without ever actually having copulated with asshole uncle is judging you. Also consider that your mom might utter "Oh my," and invoke her Inner Goddess when the dogs begin humping each other. There's on way your brother won't post the whole scene on the internet. Best to avoid.

2. The Colony by John Tayman. This book is a history of the leper colony on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. Not only is it about leprosy and the glory of body parts sloughing off (who needs a nose?), but it's also the story of how a bunch of people only suspected of having leprosy were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to Molokai even when they didn't have the disease. Pass the lumpy mashed potatoes.

3. The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. Maybe you should just avoid all books about infectious diseases. This one is topical in that it's about the history and threat of Ebola, but prudish aunt will not want to hear about hemorrhagic fevers while cooking that cranberry sauce. It's a really great, terrifying read, though, and I actually did read it over the course of a Christmas afternoon one year when I was a kid.

We love Ina, but she's not the one
cooking your dinner. Red flag. 
4. Anything by the Barefoot Contessa. Your food is not going to look like Ina Garten's. Your asshole uncle is not going to like that you're comparing his grocery store-bought pecan pie to the the picture of the pie in the cookbook your mom is showing your father, complete with judging and whispering. While I would love to attend an Ina-catered T-Day gathering, your relatives aren't professionals and you will struggle to swallow that dry turkey bite if you sink into a reverie for sumptuous feasts that might have been. (This advice extends to all cookbooks, except perhaps for that Guy Fieri person's because he doesn't seem particularly competent or sanitary. And now I'm checking to see if Guy Fieri is published by Penguin Random House....okay, good. He's not published by my company.)

5. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. There's a good chance that asshole uncle dislikes prudish aunt. There's a good chance that prudish aunt wants to destroy asshole uncle's life. These people didn't start as miserable jerks. There are years of hostilities simmering and you don't want to give either of them any ideas. And let's not even start with your parents' marriage.

6. The Dinner by Herman Koch. I love this book, but A) it's dark, B) it's unsettling, C) it's all about a horrible family meal and secrets, and D) don't give the relatives any ideas.

7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Your cousin is already insufferable. Avoid books about which she's a crusader. Okay? Okay.

8. The Children Act by Ian McEwan. I love this novel and think it's a book that most people should read and discuss. It's a short, moral novel about a family court judge whose husband of 30 years has announced he wants an open marriage, and then the court case she must decide the next day. The case involves a hospital suing to administer a blood transfusion in order to save the life of a 17 year-old kid with leukemia. The kid is a Jehovah's Witness, though, and is religiously opposed and self-righteous in that way that teenagers are about their untried convictions. This is a great, great book for your reading group, but in the family Thanksgiving minefield, you're just asking for some teenage proselytizing or asshole uncle mansplaining.

9. The Song of Fire and Ice Series (Game of Thrones) by George R. R. Martin. Prudish aunt will not approve of the gore, or the sex, or the dragons, or the incest. Asshole uncle will not approve of you paying for HBO to watch the series.

10. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright. Oh, dude, we love love love this book, and the word is that HBO is making a documentary based on the book (and hired 160 lawyers to vet everything). This is the history and expose of L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. It's juicy stuff and full of details about Hollywood, religion, cult behavior, abuse of power, science fiction, aliens, and money. Why avoid it? A) There's a possibility of sliding down the slope of logic that suggests that if this religion is a corrupt scam, what about all of the other faiths out there? B) There's the chance that your relatives are prank people and will sign you up for the Scientologists' mailing list. Once you're on there, you can never escape. C) There's the possibility that precocious cousin converts right there at the table, or asshole uncle rails so vehemently about the sheeple and Hollywood elite liberals that he has a heart attack. You do not want to be the one asked to administer CPR to that asshole, and with all the excitement of a crisis, the dogs are probably humping again in this background. Steer clear.

Happy Thanksgiving. Good luck.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

How to Shop for Books Like a Pro

A couple of months ago, a popular site in the bookish corner of the internet posted a piece about how a lifelong book lover no longer knew how to shop for books in a bookstore. On the one hand, the author of that piece used gifs and that repetitive ridiculousness makes me want to hit people. On the other, I'm willing to acknowledge that bookstores can be overwhelming, particularly during the holiday season when stores are crowded. Here are a few tips to enjoy your trip to the bookstore.

One of the most beautiful stores I visit for work,
Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City.
1. Find the store that fits you/your needs. I guarantee that you will be disappointed if you walk into a mystery bookstore and can't find that new Joan of Arc biography. That's stupid and frustrating for everyone, but believe me, IT HAPPENS. I don't go to the hipster foodie place to buy Diet Coke because all they'll have is nasty foodie artisan sodas. If you liked the Longmire series by Craig Johnson and want something similar, the mystery store is a great choice. I visit a lot of bookstores and most, even the large ones, have some specialties.

2. What's your objective? Figure it out in advance. Most people don't just wander into a grocery store without a specific goal in mind. For me, it's usually "I'm out of ice cream. I must buy ice cream. Where is the damn ice cream? For the love of god, I need ice cream now. NOW." For bookstores, it could be "I want to see what's new," or "I need a gift for Gianna's birthday four months from now," or "I heard about this book on NPR and it sounds amazing." It helps to have a goal in mind.

3. Call ahead if there's something in particular you want. If you heard about a book on NPR, that means that thousands of other people also heard about it. Sure, if we're talking about the new John Grisham thriller, the store most likely will have a fat stack of books waiting for you to walk through the door. If you are in search of a book that your friend mentioned at lunch as being the best she's read this year, and the publisher is Smaller Than a Butt Crack Press, call ahead. And when you go in to pick up your book, figure in time to poke around and see what else captures your interest.
Welcome to Maria's Bookshop in Durango, Colorado.
From here: new arrivals on the table in front, staff picks on the
endcap to the left, gift items under the table, and a canoe
hanging from the ceiling. 

4. When you get to the store, stand near the front door and get your bearings. Generally you will see: new arrivals, bestsellers (either national or for the store), gift items and seasonal merchandise like calendars, and possibly books for upcoming author signings. There may be themed displays. Where is the information desk in relation to where you are? Where is the restroom? If there's a cafe, where is it? Soak it in. Now it's time to play.

5. How to Browse. I like to start with the new arrivals because these displays change most frequently and are usually also the books featured in reviews and media. Insider tip: Tuesday is the best day to discover what's new since that's the biggest industry-wide release day of the week. Also, the Tuesday closest to the beginning of a month is more popular than, say, the third Tuesday. This year September 30th was a huge release date since it was a Tuesday, the day before a new month, and in the fall. You know how movie studios release the Oscar buzz movies in the fall? The same is true for the book industry.

Great book. Has nothing
to do with dog pictures.
From new arrivals I then head to table displays and any staff recommendation sections I can see. I want to know what the booksellers are reading because they tend to find the great books before anyone else. If a bookseller is recommending Margaret Atwood and I love Margaret Atwood, I'll check to see what else that bookseller is recommending. I regularly buy books based entirely on the bookseller's word. I trust a bookseller a zillion times more than I trust online algorithms. I loved Richard Flanagan's literary novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. If I were to follow the online recommendation, then, I should also be interested in...a picture book about dogs. I loved Hampton Sides's In the Kingdom of Ice, a history of an arctic expedition in the 19th century. And thus, according to the computer, I should like We Were Liars, a young adult novel about a group of affluent teens spending the summer of the family-owned island. Sigh. Anyway, moving on.

What are you in the mood to read? There's no reason you have to spend time in every section of a bookstore. I almost never visit the religion section (fear of smiting). I don't like fantasy books, so I gloss over those. I do love fiction, but that's a broad category and typically the biggest section in most bookstores. So let's say that you want a novel. How do you find what you're looking for among thousands of books? Here's how I do it.
  • Check favorite authors. What haven't I read? What's new? 
  • Absolutely judge books by covers. If a cover jumps out at me, I'll at least read the summary even if I've never heard of the book or author or publisher. (That said, try not to rule out a book entirely based on the fugly cover.)
  • Totally lost? Play bookstore bingo. Pick a shelf, pick the fourth book over, or the blue book, or the first book you find with a certain word in the title. You're exploring. 
  • Visit a section that's off your radar. I've already said that I don't shop in the religion section, but the flip side is that I'm fascinated by religions from a cultural studies angle. I won't be interested in Joel Osteen's latest book, but I would be interested in a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 
  • Ask a bookseller. 
This is Consuelo at BookPeople in Austin.
She's a great reader. Don't be afraid to ask
 her for book recommendations.
She's there to help.
6. Seriously, ASK A BOOKSELLER. They know what's popular, they know some hidden gems, they know what's over-hyped. They most likely can remember the title of that book you heard about on NPR. They have ideas for your next book group pick. If you want to read something in the vein of, say, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, they will know where to start. Booksellers are your guides. They read all the time. They are members of reading groups. They have great suggestions for what to give to your uncle you only see every other Christmas. You are not disturbing them by asking questions. Booksellers are there to help you find the perfect book. Would you hesitate to ask a waiter for a beverage refill? Don't be shy.

7. Don't be a book snob, and don't tolerate it either. I think that people are afraid of booksellers (and others) judging their reading tastes. It happens...but it shouldn't. There are books that I think are awful, but at the same time when I'm working in a store, my goal is to help the customers find their perfect books. I was in a bookstore selling to a buyer when a customer came in and wanted recommendations. This customer, a woman in tennis attire, asked for "books that typically have pink covers." I admit it. I may have vomited in my mouth a little. The buyer stopped what we were doing, stood up, and assisted the woman in finding something she'd love. The customer left happy and the buyer made a sale. Do you think that the hardware store employee judges you for buying a certain shade of paint? When I bought my house, one of the rooms was painting a chartreuse color that made my head hurt. Someone sold that hideous paint color, but I doubt anyone thought twice about the transaction.

Let's say that the bookseller looks nothing like you. Maybe she's a goth girl with a bunch of piercings. Maybe he's the stereotypical preppy gay guy. Maybe she's a middle aged PTA mom type. So what? Here's what you have in common: you both like books. Keep in mind that many booksellers are a bit introverted. They are bookish people. Chances are that the bookseller is willing to set aside her social
From Beauty and the Beast, Disney
discomfort every day in order to be surrounded by the books she loves. The icebreaker you need to crack the introvert bubble is "What are you reading?"

8. Have an idea. It's easier for a bookseller to recommend a book if you say "I'm looking for a gift for my uncle. He's really outdoorsy and likes to birdwatch," or "I need a book for my friend's seven year-old daughter. She's not into the whole princess thing. Help?" If I were looking for a gift for Gianna, I might say "I need a present for my pal who loves literary fiction but also as a twisted sense of humor. She loves women comics like Kathy Griffin and Gilda Radner. One of her favorite books is Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply. I know she's already read Gone Girl." That's a lot for the bookseller to use in helping me find a book.

This fall, Penguin Random House, working with Save the Children,
 is donating a book to a US child in need for every #GiveaBook
hashtag on Twitter and Facebook.
Let's change the world one book at a time. 
9. Don't piss off the bookseller with your smartphone. Booksellers aren't paid a lot. Also, they aren't the ones setting the prices on books. It is an insult to whip out your phone and price shop online for the book they just spent time finding for you. You would never bring your food truck-purchased sandwich to eat at the table in the upscale restaurant because you like the ambiance but can't afford a souffle. If you are taking advantage of the availability, recommendations, and atmosphere of a bookstore, you should buy the book there. If I'm in Mississippi and one of the booksellers is raving about a novel, I buy it from that store instead of giving that sale to another retailer. Reward the store that did the work.

10. Have fun. I really don't like shopping for anything...except for books. Books are commodities, but they are also sources of inspiration, creativity, challenging ideas, great stories, fascinating histories. I think it's high time we celebrate bookie culture the way that the foodies have elevated the concept of destination restaurants and grocery stores.